The Human Condition:

Defining Oneself by the Group – May 25, 2014

The Dissected Man

Human beings are not like buttons, defined by only one or two attributes such as shape, color, material, or intended use. Humans in their genotype, phenotype, biometrics, social situation, and their hundreds of other attributes are multi-dimensional beings.

Consider a person who is female, raised Catholic, sexually active as a lesbian, African-American by some blending of genes for skin color and other physical features, who works as an accountant, is coping with diabetes and incipient arthritis, and is a devotee of the martial arts.1 If you had to pick one feature to define this woman, what would it be? When would you use it? How completely would it define her? Each feature—and so each potential categorization—comes into play in different aspects of her life, at different times in her life, and with the different people to whom she relates.

To put her in a single group—say, African-American based on a few genes, or martial artist based on a pastime—and then claim that’s the most important aspect of her life is to miss the complexity of the person as a whole. It would be to claim her for your purposes and not necessarily for her benefit.

I can imagine some people who are so lacking in skills, interests, and imagination, whose lives are otherwise so empty, that they cling to one particular aspect of existence as their own self-identification. I imagine such a person might be an Irish patriot first, with all else—family, religion, his day job, his pint of Guinness stout, and his favorite soccer team—coming in a distant and distracting second. Or someone who is a political revolutionary first and allows nothing else to matter. Such people may make their mark in the world. They may be ready to die for that one aspect of existence. And this might make them heroes, martyrs—or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

But such a uni-dimensional life is not very interesting, outside of the drama which that single aspect and its struggles may generate. Such people are not interesting to know, spend an afternoon with, be shipwrecked with, or have in the family. Moreover, such a life is not … robust. Let the cause for which he or she fights become lost or, just as bad, be resolved peacefully, and the person will be suddenly without purpose. Then the person might go through a spiritual crisis and adopt some other aspect of life as a raison d’être, or try to rekindle the lost cause at some more radical and violent level, or simply fade into depression and die. Only one of these responses is life-affirming, and the entire pattern is too fragile for the rough and tumble of human life.2

It’s going to be a long life, too. And, given the advances in molecular medicine that are occurring right now, it’s going to be even longer than you can imagine or than anyone else before you has experienced. Medicine is on the cusp of a huge breakthrough with the unlocking and analysis of the DNA-RNA-protein regime that controls all life.3 We are already isolating stem cells—those partially differentiated cells with which the body repairs damaged tissues—and using them to grow new, relatively simple, organs. When we can decode and reprogram the RNA signals that guide cellular development, we will be able to devise from these stem cells specific tissue types, create more complex organs, adjust bodily processes on the fly, and perhaps even reverse the aging process. Humans—with a little help from right diet, regular exercise, and a bit of physical caution—will be able to live through several lifetimes.4

Think of all the sociological, economic, environmental, and relational changes you would go through in a life that moves on well past the age of one hundred. Would your allegiance to any ethnic or national background, profession or trade, political party or religious doctrine survive the next hundred years of history?5

To take just one example, consider the divorce rate in this and other advanced countries. Yes, it was only the changes in informal religious doctrine and social attitudes that made divorce more possible for the average person fifty or sixty years ago. But the underlying need, the driver, was the suddenly perceived fact that people are beginning to live longer, more productive lives, with senescence postponed until later and later. A marriage bond that will last “until death do us part” is workable if you marry at age eighteen or twenty, can expect to live only into your late fifties or early sixties, and perhaps die a lot younger through disease or accident. It’s a different proposition if you expect to live to into your late eighties or nineties and remain vigorous and active right up to the end. Our society has gone from once-and-for-all-time marriage vows, with divorce or remarriage after death being the exception, to a state of “serial monogamy” for almost everyone. Yes, you are only married to one person at a time, but often for no more than ten or fifteen or twenty years. And in that time your and your spouse’s interests will have grown apart, your life situations will have changed, you will find yourself growing bored, and you’ll be ready for romantic adventure and a new life partner.

To take another example, the nature of work has changed tremendously in the past century or so. In the developed countries, we’ve gone from the largest fraction of our population living on the farm and producing food; to living in the cities and working in centralized industries and factories; to living wherever may be convenient and telecommuting to “knowledge” jobs that arrange for the supply, distribution, and marketing of goods made in automated factories. As a writer and editor in my mid-sixties, I’ve seen the work in a few particular areas of focus—publishing, process documentation, and communications—go through waves of technical changes. I’ve had to learn new skills like electronic page layout, website design, and video production. I’ve had to reinvent myself five or six times as my job or my industry changed. And such waves of change are not going to stop anytime soon.

In the midst of this maelstrom, who would nail just a single flag to his or her masthead? Who would be prepared to sail and fight, sink and die, under that one flag? We will all have to be flexible and adaptable if we’re going to survive the next couple of hundred years.

We human beings are individuals first, with our own unique needs, desires, dreams, fears, skills, attractions, and aversions. We are members of any group only as a distant second and for a limited period of time. And, even then, that group relationship will be a poor garment that barely covers the largeness of who and what we are.

This is the true diversity of the human spirit.

1. A fictitious person, to be sure, created as an example, but still intended as a completely possible human being.

2. To quote Robert A. Heinlein: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

3. See just part of this story in The Chemistry of Control from May 11, 2014.

4. I’m right now finishing up a novel on this subject, tentatively titled Coming of Age, that follows two main characters through five succeeding generations over the next hundred years. Look for the book early this fall.

5. This recalls a story I once heard, about a woman who turned one hundred years old and was asked by a reporter if she had any regrets. Oh yes, the woman said. She regretted that she did not start learning the violin at age sixty—because by now she would have been playing for forty years.